The Sublime Object of Ideology
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The Sublime Object of Ideology

Slavoj Žižek

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The Sublime Object of Ideology

Slavoj Žižek

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Slavoj Žižek, the maverick philosopher, author of over 30 books, acclaimed as the "Elvis of cultural theory", and today's most controversial public intellectual. His work traverses the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, theology, history and political theory, taking in film, popular culture, literature and jokes—all to provide acute analyses of the complexities of contemporary ideology as well as a serious and sophisticated philosophy. His recent films The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema and Žižek! reveal a theorist at the peak of his powers and a skilled communicator. Now Verso is making his classic titles, each of which stand as a core of his ever-expanding life's work, available as new editions. Each is beautifully re-packaged, including new introductions from Žižek himself. Simply put, they are the essential texts for understanding Žižek's thought and thus cornerstones of contemporary philosophy. The Sublime Object of Ideology: Slavoj Žižek's first book is a provocative and original work looking at the question of human agency in a postmodern world. In a thrilling tour de force that made his name, he explores the ideological fantasies of wholeness and exclusion which make up human society.

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5Which Subject of the Real?

‘There is no metalanguage’
In comprehending Lacan as ‘post-structuralist’, one usually overlooks the radical break that separates him from the field of ‘post-structuralism’: even the propositions common to the two fields obtain a totally different dimension in each. ‘There is no metalanguage’, for example: this is a commonplace found not only in Lacan’s psychoanalysis and in post-structuralism (Derrida) but also in contemporary hermeneutics (Gadamer)– we usually lose from view how Lacan’s theory treats this proposition in a way that is completely incompatible with post-structuralism, as well as hermeneutics.
Post-structuralism claims that a text is always ‘framed’ by its own commentary: the interpretation of a literary text resides on the same plane as its ‘object’. Thus the interpretation is included in the literary corpus: there is no ‘pure’ literary object that would not contain an element of interpretation, of distance towards its immediate meaning. In post-structuralism the classic opposition between the object-text and its external interpretative reading is thus replaced by a continuity of an infinite literary text which is always already its own reading; that is, which sets up distance from itself. That is why the post-structuralist procedure par excellence is not only to search in purely literary texts for propositions containing a theory about their own functioning but also to read theoretical texts themselves as ‘literature’ – more precisely, to put in parentheses their claim to truth in order to expose the textual mechanisms producing the ‘truth effect’. As Habermas has already pointed out, in post-structuralism we have a kind of universalized aestheticization whereby ‘truth’ itself is finally reduced to one of the style effects of the discursive articulation.1
In contrast to this Nietzschean reference of post-structuralism, Lacan’s work makes almost no references to Nietzsche. Lacan always insists on psychoanalysis as a truth-experience: his thesis that truth is structured like a fiction has nothing at all to do with a post-structuralist reduction of the truth-dimension to a textual ‘truth-effect’. Actually, it was Lévi-Strauss who, in spite of his ferocious critique of ‘post-structuralist fashion’, opened the way to a ‘deconstructivist’ poeticism by reading theoretical interpretations of myths as new versions of the same myth; for example, he conceived Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex as just a new variation on the Oedipus myth.
In ‘post-structuralism’, metonymy obtains a clear logical predominance over metaphor. The metaphorical ‘cut’ is conceived as an effort doomed to fail; doomed to stabilize, canalize, or dominate the metonymical dissipation of the textual stream. In this perspective, the Lacanian insistence on the primacy of metaphor over metonymy, his thesis that metonymical sliding must always be supported by a metaphorical cut, can appear to post-structuralists only as an indication that his theory is still marked by the ‘metaphysics of presence’. Post-structuralists see the Lacanian theory of the point de capiton, of the phallic signifier as the signifier of lack, as an effort to master and restrain the ‘dissemination’ of the textual process. Is it not, they say, an attempt to localize a lack in a single signifier, the One, although it is the signifier of lack itself? Derrida repeatedly reproaches Lacan for the paradoxical gesture of reducing lack through its affirmation of itself. Lack is localized in a point of exception which guarantees the consistency of all the other elements, by the mere fact that it is determined as ‘symbolic castration’, by the mere fact that the phallus is defined as its signifier.2
Even at the level of a naive ‘immediate’ reading, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that in this post-structuralist position something is amiss – or, more precisely, that this criticism of Lacan runs a little too smoothly. The post-structuralist position constantly repeats that no text could be totally non-metaphysical. On the one hand, it is not possible to get rid of the metaphysical tradition by a simple gesture of taking distance, of placing oneself outside it, because the language we are obliged to use is penetrated by metaphysics. On the other hand, however, every text, however meta-physical, always produces gaps which announce breaches in the metaphysical circle: the points at which the textual process subverts what its ‘author’ intended to say. Is such a position not just a little too convenient? To put it more bluntly, the position from which the deconstructivist can always make sure of the fact that ‘there is no metalanguage’, that no utterance can say precisely what it intended to say, that the process of enunciation always subverts the utterance, is the position of metalanguage in its purest, most radical form.
How can one not recognize, in the passionate zeal with which the post-structuralist insists that every text, his own included, is caught in a fundamental ambiguity and flooded with the ‘dissemination’ of the intertextual process, the signs of an obstinate denial (in the Freudian sense of Verneinung); a barely hidden acknowledgement of the fact that one is speaking from a safe position, a position not menaced by the decentred textual process? That is why post-structuralist poeticism is ultimately affected. The whole effort to write ‘poetically’, to make us feel how our own text is already caught in a decentred network of plural processes and how this textual process always subverts what we ‘intended to say’, the whole effort to evade the purely theoretical form of exposing our ideas and to adopt rhetorical devices usually reserved to literature, masks the annoying fact that at the root of what post-structuralists are saying there is a clearly defined theoretical position which can be articulated without difficulty in a pure and simple metalanguage.
The grand post-structuralist assumption is that the classic reduction of rhetorical devices to external means which do not concern the signified contents is illusory: the so-called stylistic devices already determine the ‘inner’ notional contents themselves. Yet it would appear that the post-structuralist poetic style itself – the style of continuous ironic self-commentary and self-distance, the way of constantly subverting what one was supposed to say literally – exists only to embellish some basic theoretical propositions. That is why post-structuralist commentaries often produce an effect of ‘bad infinity’ in the Hegelian sense: an endless quasi-poetical variation on the same theoretical assumption, a variation which does not produce anything new. The problem with deconstruction, then, is not that it renounces a strict theoretical formulation and yields to a flabby poeticism. On the contrary, it is that its position is too ‘theoretical’ (in the sense of a theory which excludes the truth-dimension; that is, which does not affect the place from which we speak).
The phallic signifier
How, then, can we elude this deadlock? It is here that Lacan differs radically from post-structuralists. In Seminar XI he begins one of his sentences: ‘But this is precisely what I want to say and what I am saying – because what I want to say is what I am saying … ’ In a post-structuralist reading, such phrases prove that Lacan still wants to retain the position of Master: ‘saying what I wanted to say’ lays claim to a coincidence between what we intend to say and what we are effectively saying – is not this coincidence what defines the illusion of the Master? Is Lacan not proceeding as if his own text is exempt from the gap between what is said and what he intends to say? Is he not claiming that he can dominate the signifying effects of this text? In the Lacanian perspective it is, on the contrary, precisely such ‘impossible’ utterances – utterances following the logic of the paradox ‘I am lying’ – which keep the fundamental gap of the signifying process open and in this way prevent us from assuming a metalanguage position.
Lacan is close to Brecht here. One has only to remember the basic procedure of Brecht’s ‘learning plays’ of the early 1930s in which the dramatis personae pronounce an ‘impossible’ commentary on their own acts. An actor enters the stage and says: ‘I am a capitalist whose aim is to exploit workers. Now I will try to convince one of my workers of the truth of the bourgeois ideology which legitimizes the exploitation … ’ He then approaches the worker and does exactly what he has announced he would do. Does such a procedure – an actor commenting on his deeds from an ‘objective’ position of pure metalanguage – not make it clear, in an almost palpable way, the utter impossibility of occupying this position; is it not, in its very absurdity, infinitely more subversive than the poeticism which prohibits every direct, simple utterance and feels obliged always to add new comments, retreats, digressions, brackets, quotation marks … – so many assurances that what we are saying is not to be taken directly or literally, as identical to itself?
Metalanguage is not just an Imaginary entity. It is Real in the strict Lacanian sense – that is, it is impossible to occupy its position. But, Lacan adds, it is even more difficult simply to avoid it. One cannot attain it, but one also cannot escape it. That is why the only way to avoid the Real is to produce an utterance of pure metalanguage which, by its patent absurdity, materializes its own impossibility: that is, a paradoxical element which, in its very identity, embodies absolute otherness, the irreparable gap that makes it impossible to occupy a metalanguage position.
For Derrida the localization of the lack is supposed to tame the ‘dissemination’ of the process of writing, while for Lacan only the presence of such a paradoxical ‘at least one’ sustains the radical dimension of the gap. The Lacanian name of this paradoxical element is, of course, the phallus as signifier, a kind of negative version of ‘truth as the index of itself’. The phallic signifier is, so to speak, an index of its own impossibility. In its very positivity it is the signifier of ‘castration’ – that is, of its own lack. The so-called pre-phallic objects (breasts, excrement) are lost objects, while the phallus is not simply lost but is an object which gives body to a certain fundamental loss in its very presence. In the phallus, loss as such attains a positive existence. Here Lacan differs from Jung, to whom has been attributed – wrongly, perhaps, but se non è vero, è ben trovato – the famous phrase: ‘What is a penis but a phallic symbol?’
Let us also recall Otto Fenichel’s interpretation of the obscene gesture called in German ‘the long nose’ [die lange Nase]. Spreading the fingers in front of the face and putting the thumb on the nose supposedly connotes the erected phallus. The message of this gesture would appear to be a simple showing-off in front of an adversary: look how big mine is; mine is bigger than yours. Instead of refuting this simplistic interpretation directly, Fenichel introduces a small displacement: the logic of insulting an adversary always involves imitating one of his/her features. If this is true, what, then, is so insulting in an imitation which points out that the other has a large and powerful virile member? Fenichel’s solution is that one has to read this gesture as the first part of a sentence, the second part of which is omitted. The whole of it reads: ‘Yours is so big and powerful, but in spite of that, you are impotent. You cannot hurt me with it.’ 3
In this way the adversary is caught in a forced choice which, according to Lacan, defines the experience of castration: if he cannot, he cannot; but even if he can, any attesting to his power is doomed to function as a denial – that is, as a masking of his fundamental impotence, as a mere showing-off which just confirms, in a negative way, that he cannot do anything.4 The more he reacts, the more he shows his power, the more his impotence is confirmed.
It is in this precise sense that the phallus is the signifier of castration. This is the logic of the phallic inversion which sets in when the demonstration of power starts to function as a confirmation of a fundamental impotence. This is also the logic of so-called political provocation addressed against a totalitarian power structure. The punk imitating the ‘sadomasochistic’ power ritual is not to be conceived as a case of the victim’s identification with the aggressor (as it is usually interpreted). The message to the power structure is, on the contrary, the negation implied in the positive act of imitation: you are so powerful, but for all that, you are impotent. You cannot really hurt me! In this way, the power structure is caught in the same trap. The more violent its reaction, the more it confirms its fundamental impotence.
‘Lenin in Warsaw’ as object
To articulate more precisely the way in which the Lacanian phallic signifier entails the impossibility of metalanguage, let us return to the post-structuralist understanding of the idea that ‘there is no metalanguage’. Its starting point is the fact that the zero level of all metalanguages – natural, ordinary language – is simultaneously the last interpretative frame-work of all of them: it is the ultimate metalanguage. Ordinary language is its own metalanguage. It is self-referential; the place of an incessant auto-reflexive movement. In this conceptualization one does not mention the object too much. Usually, one gets rid of it simply by pointing out how ‘reality’ is already structured through the medium of language. In this way post-structuralists can calmly abandon themselves to the infinite self-interpretative play of language. ‘There is no metalanguange’ is actually taken to mean its exact opposite: that there is no pure object-language, any language that would function as a purely transparent medium for the designation of pre-given reality. Every ‘objective’ statement about things includes some kind of self-distance, a rebounding of the signifier from its ‘literal meaning’. In short, language is always saying, more or less, something other than what it means to say.
In Lacan’s teaching, however, the proposition ‘there is no metalanguage’ is to be taken literally. It means that all language is in a way an object-language: there is no language without object. Even when the language is apparently caught in a web of self-referential movement, even when it is apparently speaking only about itself, there is an objective, non-signifying ‘reference’ to this movement. The Lacanian mark of it is, of course, the objet petit a. The self-referential movement of the signifier is not that of a closed circle, but an elliptical movement around a certain void. And the objet petit a, as the original lost object which in a way coincides with its own loss, is precisely the embodiment of this void.
This ‘internal exclusion’ of the object from the Other of the symbolic network also allows us to expose the confusion upon which the Derridean assumption of the ‘title-address of the letter’ [le titre de la lettre] rests: that is, the criticism of Lacanian theory in which, according to Derrida, the letter always possesses its title-address, always reaches its destination. This is supposed to attest to the ‘closed economy’ of the Lacanian concept of the Symbolic: the central point of reference (the signifier of lack) allegedly precludes the possibility that a letter could go astray, lose its circular-teleological path and miss its address.5
Where does the misunderstanding in this criticism lie? It is true that in Lacanian theory ‘every letter has its title’, but this title is definitely not some kind of telos of its trajectory. The Lacanian ‘title of the letter’ is closer to the title of a picture; for example, that described in a well-known joke about ‘Lenin in Warsaw’. At an art exhibition in Moscow, there is a picture showing Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, in bed with a young member of the Komsomol. The title of the picture is ‘Lenin in Warsaw’. A bewildered visitor asks a guide: ‘But where is Lenin?’ The guide replies quietly and with dignity: ‘Lenin is in Warsaw’.
If we put aside Lenin’s position as the absent Third, the bearer of the prohibition of the sexual relationship, we could say that ‘Lenin in Warsaw’ is, in a strict Lacanian sense, the object of this picture. The title names the object which is lacking in the field of what is depicted. That is to say, in this joke, the trap in which the visitor was caught could be defined precisely as the metalanguage trap. The visitor’s mistake is to establish the same distance between the picture and the title as between the sign and the denoted object, as if the title is speaking about the picture from a kind of ‘objective distance’, and then to look for its positive correspondence in the picture. Thus the visitor poses a question: ‘Where is the object indicated by its title depicted?’ But the whole point is, of course, that in this case the relation between the picture and its title is not the usual one whereby the title corresponds simply to what is depicted (‘Landscape’, ‘Self-portrait’). Here the title is, so to speak, on the same surface. It is part of the same continuity as the picture itself. Its distance from the picture is strictly internal, making an incision into the picture. That is why something must fall (out) from the picture: not its title, but the object which is replaced by the title.
In other words, the title of this picture functions as the Freudian Vorstellungsrepräsentanz : the representative, the substitute of some representation, the signifying element filling out the vacant place of the missing representation (of the depiction, that is, of Lenin himself). The field of representation [Vorstellung] is the field of what is positively depicted, but th...

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APA 6 Citation
Žižek, S. (2019). The Sublime Object of Ideology ([edition unavailable]). Verso. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Žižek, Slavoj. (2019) 2019. The Sublime Object of Ideology. [Edition unavailable]. Verso.
Harvard Citation
Žižek, S. (2019) The Sublime Object of Ideology. [edition unavailable]. Verso. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. [edition unavailable]. Verso, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.